Monday, March 3, 2014

86th Annual Academy Awards (Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences/ABC, March 2, 2014)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The 86th annual Academy Awards turned out to be a well-turned program — it ran just a few minutes over the 3 ½-hour time slot ABC allotted to it — but also a dull one. Ellen DeGeneres was tapped as the host for the second time (she did it before in 2005) but it seems as if years of hosting a talk show have really taken the edge off her humor. She took a “selfie” of herself and posted it to Twitter (the biggest acknowledgment of what century this is was the heavy references to social media in general and Twitter in particular; at one point Ellen claimed to have crashed the whole Twitter network, which she hadn’t), and she also ordered three pizzas delivered as if they would be enough to feed the Academy’s entire live audience. The awards were oddly split: for much of the evening Gravity (a peril-in-outer-space thriller with George Clooney and Sandra Bullock as astronauts thrown from a damaged spacecraft and fighting for their survival — not a movie I’m in any hurry to see; my reaction was basically, “I’ve already seen Apollo 13”) seemed headed for an old-fashioned sweep. It ultimately won seven awards, more than any other single film, but the Best Picture went to 12 Years a Slave (once again the Academy’s weird prejudices strike: they gave 12 Years a Slave Best Picture but passed over its Black director, Steve McQueen, in favor of Alfonso Cuarón for Gravity — so instead of the first African-American Best Director winner we got the first Mexican Best Director winner), which also won for Best Supporting Actress (Lupita Nyong’o) and Best Adapted Screenplay (John Ridley — they’ll give a Black guy a writing award but not one for directing). The Great Gatsby, one of the few films on the nominated list Charles and I actually saw together, won awards for production design and costume design — both of them for Catherine Martin, who got her job by sleeping with the boss (she’s the wife of the film’s director, Baz Luhrmann) and wore one of the most spectacular costumes of the night: apparently she was determined to show the Academy and the international TV audience that she’s just a good designer for herself off-screen as she is for her husband’s casts on-screen!

By far the most powerful moments of the telecast were two with women singing; Darlene Love came up as part of the ensemble to accept the Best Documentary Feature award for the film 20 Feet from Stardom (a film about backing vocalists) and did a stunning a cappella version of “His Eye Is On the Sparrow,” and later in the show Idina Menzel, a singer I’d never heard of before, came on and did an absolutely riveting version of one of the nominated songs, “Let It Go” from the computer-animated film Frozen. Menzel is the best white woman soul singer I’ve heard since Duffy, and I’m sure it’s the sheer power of her voice (singing a quite good number that’s absolutely right for her) — she did the song in the film itself — that helped the song win the award over competition from U2 (a low-keyed all-acoustic number called “Ordinary Love” from a film about one of Bono’s pet subjects, the fight against apartheid: Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom), Pharrell Williams (who came out not only wearing that silly Mountie hat with which he disfigured the Grammy Awards but an even sillier Mountie jacket as well; recalling that at least according to the script of Happy Face Killer, Keith Jesperson committed his first murder when the trick he’d brought home insisted on trying on his Mountie hat and sent him into a murderous rage, I couldn’t help but wonder where Jesperson was when we needed him!) and someone named Karen O. There were a few of the usual tributes to older movies, including a 75th anniversary salute to The Wizard of Oz that featured all three of Judy Garland’s children, Liza Minnelli and Lorna and Joey Luft, as well as a performance of “Over the Rainbow” by Pink. That was an odd experience because Pink has quite a good, powerful voice but little sense of phrasing; she’s great in her usual material but clueless as to how to project a standard, and I couldn’t help but wish the Academy had got Lady Gaga instead (Gaga proved in her marvelous version of “The Lady Is a Tramp” with Tony Bennett on the Duets II album that she does know how to phrase a song of that vintage!).